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He's quicker than fast, has an ability to make people miss, is a natural fit at tailback. The only real question that NFL scouts are going to have is: How tough is he?
-- Notre Dame TV analyst and NFL draft expert Mike Mayock, on Theo Riddick
Celeste Bell would know. Long before her son Theo Riddick became Notre Dame's Mr. Versatility -- the 5-foot-11, 200-pound engine who would propel both the Irish's ground game and its passing attack -- he was a shy, skinny 8-year-old with a fickle taste for conflict. "I was the type of person that would size someone up, but if you were bigger than me I would instantly back down," Riddick said.
Bell knew that if the second of her five children was ever going to tunnel out of Manville, N.J., and complete the journey she had attempted decades earlier as a high school track star before pregnancy derailed her senior year, she would have to make a man out of him. (Riddick said his father was not a presence in his life.) Bell signed him up for Pop Warner and, on the occasions that she got the time off (from driving buses or cleaning houses or whatever job she held at the time) to watch Riddick, she shuddered at how soft he played. That's how Riddick remembers it. He also remembers how, during that offseason, his mother made a routine of sending him to the backyard in his helmet and pads and tackling him over and over again. Before each blow, Riddick recalled, she asked her boy the same question: Are you ready to hit?
More like quit. If Riddick hadn't possessed such a strong appreciation for Bell's sacrifices -- her finding the time between her long work shifts to put hot meals on the table, to help with homework, to play Ray Lewis to Riddick's Ricky Williams -- he might never have decided to use his shell as a bludgeon instead of a hiding place. The following Pop Warner season Riddick was reborn as a hard-running, heat-seeking touchdown machine. His Division I potential was already visible, but realizing that potential would depend on Riddick's answer to another question: How hard will he work?
Michael Dugan would know. A married father of four, Riddick's former Pop Warner coach has essentially served as Riddick's acting father since their first practice together in 2000. What stood out? "His speed, his burst and his ability to cut," Dugan said. By the time Riddick was 12, he had moved out of the home he and his mother shared with the rest of his siblings above a neighborhood bar and into his own room in the coach's colonial-style house in nearby Branchburg. The occasional Blind Side jokes, a reference to Dugan's white family taking in a black football prodigy, are inevitable now. Riddick said that as much as it pained Bell -- who declined to comment for this article -- to let her son live somewhere else, she took comfort in the prospect of Riddick becoming the first member of their immediate family to earn a college degree.
Dugan, an investment banker whose children have all gone to Immaculata High -- a small, Catholic college preparatory school with rigorous academic standards -- could make a path there for Riddick, a C student. Without relentless private tutoring, Riddick never would have kept pace. That's where Terry Lavin Kuboski -- a tiny lady "who carried a big stick," Riddick said -- came in. An English and journalism teacher at Immaculata, she voluntarily embedded herself in Riddick's life. Kuboski was sometimes there at breakfast, and she was usually there at lunch, reviewing material for upcoming tests or working on intensive writing assignments. "I felt like this is so important. ... You're going to do it well, and I don't care what it takes," Kuboski said. Her persistence more than kept Immaculata's star running back and point guard eligible, and the result was a state title in football and two others in basketball. "He's probably the fiercest competitor I've been around," said Immaculata basketball coach Michael Frauenheim. "Just glowing with enthusiasm and spirit."
The most important of Riddick's high school accomplishments came in his junior year, when he accepted a scholarship offer from Notre Dame. When the school's recruiting letters started cascading into the Dugan home along with ones from Penn State, Virginia and Boston College, Dugan wondered if Riddick could hack it at a school academically strong enough that it can "reject high school valedictorians." For Riddick -- who once prided himself on his reputation in the Dugan family as the only hater in a house full of Notre Dame superfans, and who sent up prayers at Mass for the Irish to lose -- the ironic choice was the only choice.
If he was going to become the first member of his family to flip the tassel, then why not go to the school that could provide the education and cachet he wanted whether or not football worked out? "I [knew] I needed that degree," said Riddick. "And I wanted it to be prestigious. I didn't want to be an average Joe. I wanted to stand out."
The only question left to consider was: How bad did he want it?
Jonas Gray would know. Before the Miami Dolphins signed him as an undrafted free agent last April, Gray had spent three years challenging Riddick for touches in Notre Dame's backfield. As a freshman in 2009, Riddick set a school record with 849 kickoff return yards, and Gray saw the expectations for his younger teammate surge. He saw how coolly Riddick accepted being moved from tailback to slot receiver the following year by incoming coach Brian Kelly. "I was definitely a little hesitant," Riddick admitted of the position change. "I had never played wide receiver. For me to come in and try to do it my sophomore year, already behind the curve, it was intimidating."
Gray can still hear Kelly screaming Riddick's name loud enough to pierce the piped-in artificial crowd noise, as Riddick labored to keep up in practices so fast-paced, as he put it, "we don't even have to condition afterward."
Much slower to pass was the time that Riddick spent after practice at the Jugs machine, refining his routes alone and trying to imitate the technique of his exceptionally gifted teammate Michael Floyd, selected 13th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2012 draft. "Theo wasn't in a position where he could feel his way," said Gray. "The guy really lives to do whatever it takes to help the team." Over the next two years, as Riddick placed among the team leaders in catches (78) and yards (850), Gray marveled at how hard Riddick competed, especially given the way the coaches kept demanding different skills from him.
That's why late in 2011, when a knee injury cost Gray his spot in the starting lineup, he went out of his way to tutor Riddick, whom Kelly -- after considering him at defensive back -- returned to tailback to fill Gray's void. As Riddick psyched himself up for his return to the backfield, he had a question of his own: Will I ever truly meet my potential?
Anyone who watched Riddick this season would know that he has -- and then some. It's a rare player who can slip past backfield tacklers to turn an apparent two-yard loss into a four-yard gain and find the soft spot in a zone and locate an oncoming linebacker when the blitz is on. He had a virtuoso performance on Nov. 24 against USC: three catches for 33 yards, 20 carries for 146 yards and a nine-yard charge into the end zone -- Notre Dame's only touchdown of the game -- in a 22-13 win that sealed a trip to the BCS championship game.
His season's line leading up to that game: 215 touches for 1,244 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns and a 3.0 for the semester, his first ever B average. This spring, Riddick will accept his degree in film, television and theater, thanks to his continued embrace of intensive tutoring and a binge diet of core courses he took over the summers.
Riddick projects to be a third- or fourth-round NFL draft pick -- a steal, said Gray. "Once he gets to the combine, and he's able to work with other running backs," Gray said, "they'll see it right away." They'll see that toughness is as much a question of mental and emotional mettle as physical strength.
How tough is Theo Riddick? "Tough as nails, man," Riddick said. "I'm gonna give it all I have out there. If that means I've got to run [into] a brick wall nine times just to put a dent in it, then I'll do that. That's just who I am."